Jesus invites us into a better way of living. As I’ve heard Andy Stanley say many times, “Jesus makes our life better and makes us better at life.”
I didn’t always believe this. In fact, I pushed back hard against this sentiment, because I was trained to believe that following Jesus was supposed to be hard. The thought goes something like this - If you aren't suffering then you aren't really living for Jesus and His causes.
Throughout scripture you see people dying for the causes of Jesus and we see Jesus Himself dying at the hands of Roman soldiers. So we shouldn’t expect life to be easy, right? I was made to feel guilty for my first world life and it was made clear that the “elite” followers of Jesus left the comforts of America to reach those in dangerous, poverty stricken countries while the rest of us, more carnal converts, stay home and give money as we pray that Jesus would make us less selfish heathens.
It is a faith built on guilt, shame, and condemnation. It requires us to sacrifice because we feel bad or somehow obligated to do so.
The only problem with this is that I don’t believe that is the Gospel message at all. If it were - it wouldn’t be good news, would it?
Different Context, Different Culture
We often forget that the New Testament was written in a completely different time and context. There are some odd verses that remind us of this, for example:
But every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven - 1 Corinthians 11:5 (ESV)
Most churches don’t obey this incredibly clear New Testament command. Why? Because common sense tells us that Paul wasn’t commanding every church in every time period ever to ask women to cover their heads. It was a specific command to this culture because it meant something different to them than it does us.
In His culture this was a command to be modest. Modesty is the underlying Gospel principle. The scriptures show us the proper motivation for our obedience, but the actual way that obedience plays out is dependent upon our culture. For example, in some cultures it would be unchristlike to eat first at the home of a guest, but in another culture it would be unchristlike to NOT eat first. Why? Because we are to show honor as Christ followers, but that honor looks different in different cultures all the way down to who eats first at the dinner table.
Why am I talking about culture so much? It dramatically affects the way we see how hard following Jesus is ‘supposed’ to be. It is important to realize that in the New Testament Christ followers were under intense persecution for their faith - like given the death penalty type of persecution. It was a high cost for those who wanted to be on team Jesus. Therefore, suffering for Christ is a big theme in the New Testament.
So, what many well meaning Christians - living in a vastly different time and culture - conclude is that we ought to be suffering also. Afterall, why else would that be in the good book? (Insert your best Southern Baptist Deacon voice where it says “good book”)
Since we don’t actually suffer for our faith in America we just make up stuff so we don’t feel bad. I know you think people are making fun of you for your faith and they very well may be, but you aren’t being killed for your faith so lets not pretend like it's the same thing.
Oh yes, I know the government passes laws that aren’t in accord with your beliefs, but that actually is a blessing to most who love democracy. That’s partly why we started this thing called America. We believed that the government shouldn’t tell people what to believe or how to live. It is interesting how we like this when it is aligned with what we believe, but all the sudden our heart changes when the government goes against our belief system and we label it persecution. I am not talking politics here - that is not my calling or my desire. My point is we call this suffering when it is nothing compared to the actual suffering in the life of the Apostle Paul and others following Jesus in the first century. You may hate the governor's policy on abortion, but you don’t have to worry about him or her using your body as a torch to light the night sky as a result of your faith. One is annoying, maybe even ignorant while the other is truly pursection. Don’t confuse the two.
The New Testament isn’t calling us to suffer for the sake of suffering. (That would be dumb) The authors inspired by the Spirit call us to be willing to suffer for the cause of Christ. Big difference. The truth is most of us will probably never suffer in a meaningful way for the cause of Christ. We WILL suffer, but most likely that will be due to our own bad choices or simply the result of living in a fallen world where sickness and tragedy still happen without mercy.
Why does this matter? If you believe that you must suffer to be a good Christian you will do one or all of the following:
None of these things are of Jesus. In the Gospel all guilt melts away. We are grace motivated people. Grace may take you to a third world country or it may mean you live in a suburb in an upper middle class community your entire life. Neither is better than the other. Both require faith. Both will be a journey that forms you into looking more like Jesus.
What about dying to self?
“Blake, Jesus clearly says we must die. Does dying sound fun or easy to you?” - You might say to me and to which I would reply, “Dying isn’t fun, but if dying leads to a brand new perfected version of me then sign me up.”
This is what Jesus does for us. Yes, we die to ourselves. And yes it is hard and yes, we must be willing to obey when it is hard. But, all of this leads to being more like Jesus - who says His burden is light and His yoke is easy. As you become more like Jesus your life does indeed become better and you become better at life.
Over the next couple of blog posts, I plan on fleshing this out in greater detail. Starting next with the role of effort in our grace journey.
I’ll end this post by inviting you to ask this question, “Do I obey because I am guilty or because the grace of Jesus is so compelling and beautiful to me that I desire to obey?”
Answer it honestly and then look at these words from Jesus. Is following Jesus supposed to be hard? Not your circumstances - of course those are hard. For some, they are harder than others. I am talking about the actual discipline of putting Jesus at the center and becoming more like Him. Does life get worse or better? Do we have more peace or less peace?
If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. - Matthew 16:25 (NLT)
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” - Matthew 11:28-30 (MSG)